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Gold medalist Julia Mancuso says skiing is "99 percent mental"

For Julia Mancuso, success on the slopes starts with the right equipment – and mindset. Neither was in good shape at the start of Mancuso's World Cup season. Plagued by persistent gear issues and inconsistent times, she had failed to crack the top 10 in any race.

The problems were weighing on her.

 "At this point in my career, I believe (skiing) is 99 percent mental," Mancuso told CBS News. "I think the training and working on equipment has a lot to do with the mental aspect."

Mancuso has finally discovered the equipment – and attitude – she wants to take to the Sochi Games, and it's showing in the results. Last month, the 29-year-old Californian was the fastest skier at the World Cup downhill training and had two consecutive top-10 results in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

"It's been a tough start but things are really going according to plan going to the Games," she said. "I feel exactly where I need to be."

Part of that healthy mindset has to do with Mancuso's rigorous – and unorthodox – training during the offseason. In April, while many skiers are taking a break at home, she can be found on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But it's no vacation; Mancuso is lifting weights, biking, stand-up paddling and doing sprints -- underwater.

"It feels so good on your body," she said. "Getting into underwater training has helped a lot with mental training… you have to really know your limits and then believe you can push yourself to that limit."

Pushing limits on and off the slopes is nothing new to Mancuso. Nicknamed "Super Jules" by her teammates, she not only displays audacity on her skis but also a bold fashion sense. In 2006, she gained attention by wearing a tiara on the podium at the 2006 Olympics. The coronet, a joke gift from her coach, has since become her signature attire and she flaunts it; in 2010, she launched and modeled a line of lingerie called "Kiss My Tiara."

2014 Winter Olympics: 10 U.S. athletes to watch
2014 Winter Olympics: 10 U.S. athletes to watch
The laid-back, ukelele-playing Mancuso has a reputation for being a fierce competitor, especially on the Olympic stage. At the 2006 Torino Games, the woman who had never won a World Cup race came out of nowhere to win gold in the giant slalom. Then in 2010, Mancuso, hindered by injuries all season, turned it around in Vancouver, winning two silver medals in the downhill and combined. No other female American alpine skier has won three Olympic medals.

Mancuso admits she may turn it up a notch at the Games because of her hometown. Raised in Squaw Valley, Calif. – the host of the 1960 Olympics – she grew up in the shadow of the Olympic rings and always dreamed of skiing at the Games. Like Torino and Vancouver, she says she's always had her eyes on Sochi, where she will compete in the downhill, super-G, giant slalom and super combined.

"Being focused on the Olympics has enabled me to stay positive," she said. "I do think I perform well at the Olympics because they just really excite me."

This time around, Mancuso will have all eyes on her – in part, because the most high-profile member of the U.S. women's team, Lindsey Vonn, won't be competing. The reigning Olympic downhill champion is still recovering from another operation on her right knee. But Mancuso says there is no added pressure to perform without Vonn, who has been both a friend and rival of Mancuso's for almost two decades.

"Pressure is an interesting thing because it's always individual," she said. "Even when (Lindsey) is skiing, there's a ton of pressure because you want to be the fastest no matter what."

Now on the cusp of her 30th birthday, Mancuso says she feels stronger and healthier than ever. Asked whether Sochi would be her last Olympics, she said she wasn't sure, conceding that it's tough to endure the travel schedule – and rollercoaster emotions – that come with the job. But Mancuso says it's more about "enjoying the journey" than fixating on the results. In the end, she said her love of the sport, her avid fans – and her childhood dream – keep her going.

"I'm definitely surprised that I'm sitting here now … and I'm doing the same thing I did as a kid – dreaming about the Olympics," she said, "I didn’t know I'd be doing it for so long and I still feel like a kid."

Undated family photo of Julia Mancuso, left, on her skis. Mancuso says she started skiing at age 3 in her hometown of Squaw Valley, Calif. Julia Mancuso